Red Cross Hospital


Old Frame Church Near Red Cross Purchased for Expansion. (From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 14 November 1948)

Red Cross Hospital in Louisville was formally established in the 1890s as Kentucky’s first and pre-eminent all African American hospital. Despite its name, it was not associated with the American Red Cross. Before the hospital opened, African American patients had one of two options; to go to Louisville’s General Hospital which served indigent people or Waverly Hills Sanitorium for tubercular patients. The hospital’s roots began in a two-story ‘A’ frame building. In 1905, the hospital moved to its final location on South Shelby Street where it stayed until it closed in the 1970s. Red Cross accepted patients regardless of their ability to pay and they would stay at the hospital until they were well. However, financial problems would consistently plague the hospital. The 1930s and 1940s were particularly hard for the hospital, doctors, nurses, and the patients that they served. During that time, Red Cross lost its certification to train nurses and the facilities were aging and wearing down. At one point the laboratory equipment at the hospital became completely obsolete. This did not, however, sway the staff and they persevered.

Children’s Story Hour at the Hospital. (From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 21 February 1988)

The nurses at the hospital collected invoices, washed windows, and scrubbed floors. Physicians completed charting themselves going as far as purchasing drugs at local pharmacies at retail prices; they also brought their own medical instruments as the hospital did not have any. In a 1988 article by the Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) some of the employees told stories of what life was like back then; employees were never invited to seminars and thus had to read on their own to keep up. By the mid-1940s, efforts were well underway to turn the hospital around. A newly formed board of trustees, an administrator, medical director, superintendent of nurses, records clerk, laboratory technician, dietitian, bookkeeper, and an x-ray technician were brought to the hospital. A successful fundraising campaign the next year brought all new equipment into the hospital. The number of beds increased from 38 to 54. Near the end of the 1940s, Red Cross became the only private African American hospital in the nation that was approved by the American Cancer Society to operate a cancer clinic. A small clinic of specialists treated 10 patients twice a month. Red Cross also opened a school for practical nurses the same year.

New Hospital Administrator Waverly B. Johnson (Center), L. T. Duncan (Left), and Charles T. Steele (Right). (From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 18 August 1954)

1951 brought a significant increase in the number of beds, nearly doubling to 100 beds after a $650,000 new wing was built. The new wing contained five operating rooms, two nurseries, complete x-ray suite, clinical laboratory, dental clinic, laundry, and a heating plant. By the late 1950s, however, there was a growing movement at ending medical segregation in Louisville and this would eventually lead to the demise of the hospital. In the early 1970s Red Cross changed its name to Community Hospital to try and keep up with other larger hospitals with more advanced technology and equipment. By 1975 the hospital was in debt to the tune of $50,000 and was unable to keep capacity.

Red Cross was a staple in the care of Louisville’s African American population. It was estimated that by the middle of the century, the percentage of African Americans in the city was at around 15% while only 8% of all hospital beds in the city were open to them. It was noted that “The City maintains beds at General Hospital for paupers. But the people who are at the greatest disadvantage are the very people who are most deserving, those self-supporting, self-respecting Negroes who are willing and able to pay their own hospital bills on the same basis as those among the whites in a comparable economic spectrum–if there was only enough hospital service open to them. To provide hospital facilities for them is charitable only to the extent that building a hospital open to white paying patients is charitable.”

(Images from the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky)

Red Cross Hospital in 2019. Photo taken by Jay Gravatte.

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), 14 November 1948, p. 47.
  2. The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), 21 February 1988, p. 11.

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